2010 Top Political Stories: Behind the scenes of BP disaster

The BP disaster, the largest man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history, maybe even world history, heads most media’s list of top news stories, but the behind scenes political maneuvers of the crisis also qualify it for this list of political stories.

From May 1, when the Coast Guard, BP and the oil companies’ clean-up contractors came to Pensacola on an overcast Saturday morning to meet with Gov. Charlie Crist, DEP and local officials, BP used misdirection and misguided optimism to build confidence and trust with the state and local governments and control the media message for this unprecedented disaster.

I hold the record for the first reporter to be kicked out of a BP-controlled meeting when DEP officials, who had already been co-opted by BP, escorted me out of that briefing. Rather than go away, I camped out in the hall of the Chappie James Building and waited for Gov. Crist to arrive. I was on my cell phone calling whoever I knew in the Crist administration and U.S. Senate campaign asking for help to get back in the meeting.

Fortunately it didn’t take a court order. It was really quite simple. I stood by the elevator. When Gov. Crist got off with his entourage, I reached out my hand. Gov. Crist could never miss a chance to campaign. With him was Pensacola native Mike Burns. They asked why I was standing alone in the dark hallway. When told them I had been kicked out, Crist said, “Rick, come on with me.” I walked into the meeting right behind Crist and with Burns by side. The BP and DEP officials were seething, especially when I sat down at the conference table refusing to fade into the background, but they said nothing.

The meeting itself was inconsequential. Larry Newsom, interim county administrator, and his staff had already put together a plan for protecting our beaches, bays and waterways and were anxious to present it. It never happened. Coast Guard showed the Florida Governor a series of maps on the Deepwater Horizon well, currents and talked about efforts to cap the well. BP talked about boom…which we later found out was more for show than actually stopping tar balls from impacting us.

The big message to local officials by BP and the state was they would help us and spare no expense to do so. What they did is literally turn upside down the state’s emergency response network. For hurricanes and other natural disasters, counties have a emergency response centers (EOC) that stay in constant contact with other EOCs in the region and with the state EOC. The local officials have the power and control to dictate how the county responds to the hurricane or other disaster. FEMA steps in to help the counties and cities, but the locals are seen as the ones who know best how to handle the problems.

The state evoked the EOC system to respond to the BP disaster, but power, control and funding were retained by BP and the Coast Guard…not locally, not in Tallahassee, but in Mobile, Ala. and Robert, La.

Our EOC became a show place, a photo op and a television sound bite for politicians. All offered help. Few actually gave it. Local officials took the public criticism for inactivity, but they were hamstrung by the BP-Coast Guard-DEP chain of command. While BP and Tallahassee were telling the media that no expense would be spared and that BP was paying for everything, funds were being withheld from local governments. Counties and cities had to reach into reserves to fund their expenditures.

Meanwhile, BP was holding a series of town hall meetings across the Gulf Coast, establishing Community Outreach Centers (doesn’t the name sound reassuring?) and publishing toll-free numbers.

At the town hall meetings, young ladies with no technical expertise or knowledge deflected any anger and frustration by asking the scared citizens and business owners for their ideas. It got so bad that I suggested to city and county officials that they shouldn’t get on the same stage as these BP Barbies because the BP shills offered no value to the discussion.

The Community Outreach Centers worked similarly. Names were taken, stories recorded and small checks were being written, but the centers were more for show than action. The centers were part of the BP spin machine, running in TV ads and featured in articles as far away as Los Angeles.

The toll-free numbers were similar jokes. We had a reporter call all of them. Rarely did they get any help. Oftentimes the operator had to be told how to spell “Pensacola.” A Houston newspaper did a story about how call center workers were given scripts, told to take down information and that information was never given to BP.

To their credit, county officials caught on quick to the lunacy of the public response to this disaster by BP and state and federal officials. Newsom and his team worked tirelessly against all the handicaps to prepare for the pending rush of tar balls. There never was a question of if, only when. They are the real heroes in this crisis.

For the most part, the Escambia County Commission let Grover Robinson, their chairman and in whose district is Pensacola Beach, to take lead on the county’s response. There was some grumbling from Commissioner Gene Valentino, who represents Perdido Key and was also up for re-election, but Robinson worked out that Valentino got his camera time, too.

I stayed away from the EOC after the first week because I frankly got tired of the out-of-town officials grandstanding, but when I saw BP continually minimizing the risk and lying about its response, I felt I had to be a presence at the EOC press conferences.

By then, I had written several well-received articles for The Daily Beast on the early attempts to get fishermen to sign waivers, the holes in the BP marketing efforts and how the Vessel of Opportunity program, which was to pay fisherman to help with the BP response effort, was paying off doctors, lawyers and others for use of their pleasure boats. I was a marked man and the BP spokespeople didn’t like me.

The first thing I did was constantly request that BP be present at all press conferences at the EOC. I was told they had either left the building (I later found out that was a lie) or that they were still in meetings. I made the request three press conferences in row. The other media caught on and they also began requesting BP. I told Grover that he should do so also, because the county was being seen as in control when it was really BP calling the shots. BP should have to answer the tough questions, not him.

From the point forward, BP had someone at every EOC press conference. It got funny because there times that Grover would sit with the media and start asking BP questions, too.

I’ve written about it before, but Grover worked around the clock for Escambia County. I saw him grow as a leader and go toe-to-toe with BP, Coast Guard, DEP and President Obama. While others used the influx of camera crews–some of which camped on Pensacola Beach for most of May and all of June–to get national exposure, Robinson never pressed to be in the limelight, but worked behind the scenes to get the necessary funds and approvals to defend our shorelines and waterways. Even now, he is working to get newly elected Gov. Rick Scott to help us got our share of the next round of federal/BP funding.

In many ways, Pensacola was really a minor player in this disaster, something local hotels and other businesses don’t want to admit. Louisiana and Orange Beach were impacted much worse that we were, but still Pensacola got a lion share of the national attention. I credit two people–Joe Scarborough and Mike Papantonio.

On “Morning Joe,” Scarborough talked about his hometown and had daily features on the disaster. The founder of The Daily Beast, Tina Brown, was a regular morning guest giving updates, oftentimes based on my articles. Joe did two shows from here, getting locals before the camera—-even Mayor Mike Wiggins jumped in the gulf, fully clothed, to prove the water was safe.

Mike Papantonio did four to five interviews a day on television and radio about the disaster. Because of his connections across the Gulf Coast, he offered insights and information that others didn’t have. He kept the pressure on BP and made people care about how the millions of gallons of crude oil and the dispersants were impacting our quality of life.

Scarborough and Papantino made Pensacola relevant nationally during this environmental crisis.

Two other political developments that need to be mentioned are the emergence of Chasity Hobbs as the new Emerald Coastkeeper and the unification of Pensacola Beach leaseholders.

Hobbs, a professor at the University of West Florida, had taken over Emerald Coastkeepers less than a year before the Deepwater Horizon explosion. She become the champion for our ecosystem during this crisis and emerged as a reasonable, credible voice that attracted national attention.

Pensacola Beach residents banned together as the oil tar balls and mattes hit their shores. With the help of attorney John Asmar, they became a political force that got the attention of SRIA officials, county officials and BP. The IN received photos and reports daily on the condition of the beach and clean-up efforts, many of which contradicted the press releases from BP.

The only thing we have truly lacked is a strong voice from our city and county governments for local businesses in the claims process. Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon has been vocal for his businesses, twice demanding Ken Feinberg, head of the Gulf Coast Claim Facility, hold public meetings with business owners. Our elected officials have been relatively silent, leaving the claims process to the attorneys and accountants.

There also has been reluctance by the county and city to hire outside legal counsel to represent them against BP for loss revenue. Other cities and states have already filed lawsuits. We haven’t even issued Requests for Qualifications.